How Beckham Blew It
After his five-month loan to Italian superclub AC Milan,
Beckham's side made sure he became team captain, and later they engaged in a behind-the-scenes takeover of Galaxy management. Yet L.A. failed to reach the MLS playoffs both years. By the end of the '08 season Beckham was barely speaking to his teammate
The Beckham Experiment is a story of worlds colliding, bringing together the planet's most famous athlete with teammates who earned as little as $12,900 a year. But that inequity was only the start of a downward spiral that, on the eve of Beckham's return, has turned into a soccer fiasco.
The summit meeting took place at Mastro's, a high-class steak house in Beverly Hills. On July 25, 2007 -- three days after their welcome-to-Hollywood party, hosted by
Nearly anywhere else in the world, Donovan's achievements would have made him a household name, a fixture on the covers of sports magazines and (considering that his wife starred in the CBS sitcom
Beckham was supplanting Donovan as the main attraction in U.S. soccer, and if MLS's Beckham Experiment was to work, Donovan needed to be happy. Beckham knew it. So did
As the wives chatted among themselves and Yallop got the conversation going among the men by asking Beckham about his playing days in Europe, Donovan recalled two exchanges that had taken place just the week before. On successive days he had met with Yallop and Galaxy president and general manager
Donovan's first thought about his bosses' request?
Donovan gave up the captaincy three weeks later. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he had only two options. He could dig in his heels, force Yallop to make the change himself and create tension with Beckham in the locker room. Or he could accept that he was boxed into a corner, give up the armband and hear public praise from Beckham and Yallop for his selfless act for the good of the team. Of course, nobody -- including Donovan -- would tell the media the real story behind the change.
Meanwhile, Beckham made an effort to fit in, and on his first MLS road trip he endured an only-in-America experience. After his first training session with the Galaxy, in Washington two days before a nationally televised game against D.C. United, he helped organize a dinner with 10 other players at Morton's steak house in Arlington, Va. Beckham had enjoyed the players-only meals at Real Madrid, and if he was going to be just one of the lads in the Galaxy locker room, things needed to get off on the right foot. Not long after they took their table, the waiter asked if anyone wanted wine. They all raised their hands.
"O.K.," the waiter said. "I need to see some I.D.'s."
"I don't have my I.D. with me," Beckham said.
"No I.D., no wine!" the waiter announced, theatrically snatching Beckham's wineglass.
Beckham thought it was a put-on. "Is this guy taking the piss?" he asked. But the waiter was serious. When the Galaxy's Portuguese defender
Beckham's bodyguard pulled the waiter aside to explain. Soon the maître d' came over. "I don't care who they are!" the players heard the waiter say to his boss. Finally the maître d' prevailed, and Beckham and Xavier got their wineglasses in time to join their teammates in a toast.
The Morton's dinner was the first time Beckham had held center stage at a players-only meal, and he came out of his shell, answering questions and telling stories about his days with Manchester United, the English national team and Real Madrid. The vibe was comfortable. There was no awkwardness with Beckham. "You can break his balls," said defender
And then the check came.
Beckham was earning a $6.5 million salary, and his income, with endorsements, would balloon to $48.2 million. Martino was making a salary of $55,297 -- before taxes -- and living in one of the U.S.'s most expensive cities. Nearly everyone at the table was thinking,
Donovan eyed the bill from his seat. He had paid for teammates' dinners in the past, and he'd made his position clear even before Beckham's arrival. "He'd better be picking up meals too," Donovan had told teammates, "or else I'll call him out on it." But defender
"If you're out to dinner with the guys and you pick up a check here or there, then fine," Klein said. "But if you start to feel like you're being used, these aren't your friends anymore. These are
Beckham didn't pick up the check. He put in enough to cover his share and passed it along. That would be standard operating procedure at meals throughout the season. "None of us care," said
Donovan didn't call Beckham out at Morton's after all, but he could never get over Beckham's alligator arms when the bill arrived. Nobody would have believed it, he thought: David Beckham is a cheapskate.
Injuries limited Beckham to seven games in 2007 as L.A. missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. But when Yallop resigned after the season, it wasn't Lalas who conducted the search for a new coach.
With his manic energy and masterly talents for theater, promotion and spin, Lalas was the sports equivalent of magician
How do you feign rousing support for a coach whom everyone thinks you handpicked, when in fact you had nothing to do with it? How do you sing the praises of a great soccer mind when in fact you counseled your boss against hiring him? As he flashed his most convincing fake smile, Lalas couldn't stop thinking of the horrible scene earlier that day in the Galaxy locker room. Lalas brought Gullit in front of all the players, held out his right arm and announced, "Guys, this is your new coach,
Most of the players were confused. Who was this British guy who looked like the comedian
The mysterious figure was Byrne, who was not only Beckham's best friend and personal manager but also a business associate of Beckham's manager, 19 Entertainment chief
At the news conference introducing Gullit, the 19 Entertainment logo was plastered all over the backdrop. Beckham's handlers had essentially taken over the Galaxy, snatched away Lalas's power and installed their man as coach. At least Leiweke was honest about it. "When
There was a major difference, however. Gretzky, Magic or Kobe never had his best friend put in a paid management position that was never spelled out to his teammates.
The 2008 Galaxy was a nightmare defensively, but early on L.A. also produced some of the most entertaining attacking soccer that MLS had ever seen. Donovan scored eight goals in the season's first five games, three of them coming from Beckham's passes, and for a brief period the Galaxy's two biggest stars found common ground.
After months of reflection Donovan felt that he had worried too much about Beckham's arrival, wasted too much time and energy wondering whether they and their wives would have a close relationship. It was like the bad parts of high school, and it didn't have to be that way. In fact life was a lot easier now that Donovan realized where he and Beckham did connect: on the field, where their shared passion, competitiveness and talent had a sort of elemental purity that Donovan craved. "We're both soccer players," Donovan said, "and we want to win. It's not much more complicated than that. I don't have to go hang out with David on weekends. So by having that mentality we've gotten along really well this year off the field as well. I think there's more mutual respect than there was last year. Not that it was bad, but there was never any real connection."
Of course, forging that soccer bond had been impossible in 2007 because Beckham had rarely played. Donovan now understood how skilled Beckham really was; he marveled at Beckham's passing precision and efficiency, the way he hit the ball cleanly every time. Donovan had reached the point, unheard of in MLS, of believing a teammate's passes would go exactly where they were supposed to -- and 95% of the time they did. With the combination of Beckham's technical ability and his full-field vision, Donovan was in soccer nirvana. "It's just fun," he said. "When he gets the ball, my eyes light up because I know every time there's the potential that we're going to score a goal."
From the start Donovan's primary concern with Beckham had been, What is he
The optimism didn't last. After a 3-0 victory in San Jose on June 14, L.A. would go three months without a win, dropping to the bottom of the MLS standings. The hiring of Gullit as coach turned out to be disastrous. Several players said the Galaxy hadn't practiced set pieces during the entire two-month-long preseason, an unfathomable concept for a team that had the world's premier dead-ball specialist (Beckham). In training sessions Gullit almost never spent time on individual technical skills, instead conducting game after game of 11-on-11. Even worse, Donovan observed, on many days Gullit rolled into the Home Depot Center at 9 a.m. and left by 12:30 p.m. (Practice was from 10 to noon.) "A coach should be the first one there and the last one to leave, and it just wasn't the case," Donovan said.
By July 2008, moreover, the L.A. players had seen enough to realize that Beckham might be a good teammate, but he wasn't much of a captain. It was one thing to take part in team events, the Galaxy players felt, but it was another thing to lead, to rally the players during tough times and defend the greater good of the team with the coach and the front office. Donovan noticed several things. For one, when Gullit gave the players an optional practice day, Beckham rarely showed up. ("As the captain you should at least come in and show your face," Donovan said.) What's more, Donovan thought Beckham should address the team about Byrne's role and clear up any confusion. "But he hasn't had anything to say to anybody," Donovan said, shaking his head.
Most of all, Donovan was upset that Beckham had not supported him in front of the team when Gullit had confronted him at halftime of the May 25 game against Kansas City. Donovan had not played deep enough in midfield in the first half, according to Gullit, who angrily challenged him in the locker room. "If I'm the captain and he goes after our best player that way, I would have said, 'Hold on a second, that's not right, this guy is doing everything he can,' " Donovan said. But Beckham had sat stone silent.
The questions about Beckham's leadership didn't come just from Donovan, but also from other players who liked Beckham personally and had shared meals with him on road trips. Veteran defender
"I think he's a great guy, a great father, and a very good soccer player who's special in the qualities he brings to the field," Vanney said, "but he doesn't live in the same world that we live in. That's not his fault, but it's very difficult for him to relate to and understand the majority of the players on the team, how we're treated by the coach. Maybe it's not in his best personal interest to take a stance, but it's a stance he should take because he's the leader of our group." Beckham was indeed more vocal in representing the players at private meetings with Gullit, sources close to Beckham argued, but Vanney thought his teammates needed to be made aware of that, since he saw no evidence of the coach's changed behavior.
The moment that sealed Beckham's "good teammate, bad captain" reputation might have come last October, when Klein started questioning whether Beckham was well-suited for the armband. If you had polled teams on the best-liked player in MLS, Klein probably would have won the vote. "I really like David as a person, and I respect him as a man," Klein said, "but it's a different type of leadership that has to go on with all this. Sometimes it's the rah-rah American sports leader that needs to be like, 'All right, guys, come on!' and have a team meeting. It's difficult for a foreign player to do that because [he doesn't] know what the college kid had to go through, [he doesn't] know what it's like to make $12,000 a year." The more Beckham disengaged from the Galaxy players, the more some of them wondered if his five-year captaincy with England had been as ceremonial as the role of the British royal family.
Beckham, meanwhile, had grown increasingly frustrated over not seeing enough of the ball on the right side, so much so that he had been drifting all over the field. "There are times when I scratch my head, saying we're paying millions of dollars for a centerback," Lalas said. Beckham wasn't hiding -- he wanted to do
By mid-July, Donovan felt he needed to say something to Beckham about it, but it was a sign of their increasingly distant relationship that he did so by text message.
Beckham's reply was short:
"It's difficult to know how to approach him with things, to be critical of him," Donovan said, "because he doesn't take it well."
In August 2008 Leiweke napalmed the Galaxy's dysfunctional management structure, pushing out Lalas, Gullit and Byrne, thereby damaging his relationship with Team Beckham. Not once did Beckham address the players as L.A.'s free fall continued, and in October he used a yellow-card suspension as a reason not to attend L.A.'s most important game of the season, a loss in Houston that eliminated the team from playoff contention. Four days later news broke of Beckham's clandestine push to be loaned to AC Milan. Donovan was furious.
Over a lunch of lamb pizza and a peach salad at Petros, a stylish Greek restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Donovan took a sip of Pinot Grigio and exhaled deeply. It was 24 hours after he'd learned of Beckham's desire to move to Milan, and instead of enjoying a Thursday off from practice, he was miserable. The Galaxy's awful season hadn't ended yet, but all the talk was about Beckham's possible departure. Donovan himself was convinced that Captain Galaxy had vanished in spirit weeks earlier. "My sense is that David's clearly frustrated, that he's unhappy and, honestly, that he thinks it's a joke," said Donovan, who was about to clinch the MLS goal-scoring title. "I also kind of feel [he has taken the team] for granted. I don't see dedication or commitment to this team, and that's troubling."
The longer Donovan had been around Beckham, the more he'd asked himself, Who
"We'll see," Beckham replied. "I've got to stay fit somehow during the off-season."
"It's a nice city, right?"
"Some people say it is, but I don't know."
And that was it. Their lockers were side-by-side, but they might as well have been a million miles apart.
No, Donovan decided, Beckham communicated far more clearly with his actions than with his words. Donovan still couldn't fathom why Beckham had stayed in England for nearly three days after a national-team game the previous week, had refrained from traveling to Houston to support his teammates in the most important game of the year. It didn't matter that he was suspended, Donovan thought, didn't matter that he'd been given permission by the Galaxy to stay away.
"All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us," Donovan said. "As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways -- on the field, off the field. Does the fact that he earns that much money come into it? Yeah. If someone's paying you more than anybody in the league, more than
Donovan had wanted the Beckham Experiment to work, and there was no reason in his mind that it still couldn't be successful in 2009. But not if Beckham continued acting the way he had during the last half of 2008. "When David first came, I believed he was committed to what he was doing," Donovan said. "He cared. He wanted to do well. He wanted the team and the league to do well. Somewhere along the way -- and in my mind it coincides with Ruud being let go -- he just flipped a switch and said, 'Uh-uh, I'm not doing it anymore.' "
By now, in fact, Donovan no longer agreed with the "good teammate, bad captain" verdict that so many other Galaxy players had reached on Beckham. Donovan was convinced that Beckham wasn't even a good teammate anymore: "He's not. He's not shown that. I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good teammate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with [Beckham] I'd say no, he wasn't committed."
The most fascinating aspect of Donovan's barrage was the even manner in which he delivered it. He sounded like a scientist revealing the findings of an experiment. The way Donovan saw it, he was just sharing his conclusions about a coworker, one who happened to be David Beckham.
Donovan didn't know what would come next, but he did know that things would have to change if he and Beckham were teammates in 2009. "Let's say he does stay here three more years," Donovan said. "I'm not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is f------ miserable. I don't want to have soccer be this way."
What could he do? "That's my issue too," he said. "I've got to confront it somehow. If that's the way he's going to be, fine, then hold him accountable. Bench him. Just say, 'We're not going to play you, we don't think you're committed.' "
As disgusted as he sounded, though, Donovan still thought his relationship with Beckham could be saved -- if Beckham returned to being the kind of teammate who at least wanted to come support the Galaxy the day after an England game. Then again, it all might have been moot, given the Milan news. Donovan knew how the soccer world worked, knew how Beckham and 19 Entertainment operated too. "It could be that it's just a loan now," Donovan said, "but he could play a few games and go, 'S---, I want to stay here.'"
Donovan was right. Beckham produced two goals and two assists in his first five games for Milan and announced that he wanted to stay in Italy instead of returning to the Galaxy. Thus began a monthlong global saga of negotiations involving Milan, L.A. and MLS. The result: Beckham would finish the Serie A season and rejoin the Galaxy in July, midway through the MLS season.
By the time Beckham returned, Donovan planned on finally confronting the Englishman over his commitment to the Galaxy. Now, however, the tables had turned. Donovan was wearing the captain's armband again.